Back to OWR Homepage Back to South-East
Asian Religions timechart

South-East Asian Religions

The ancient indigenous religion of both mainland and island SE Asia is Animism. Its exact temporal beginnings are unknown and probably simply developed naturally with the development of the early bronze age communities. It continues to exert a strong influence on the modern cultures both Buddhistic and Islamic of SE Asia. Together with aspects of Confucianism from China, Animism underpins all the adopted religions of the region. It may go back as early as the earliest known human communities such as that of Ban Chiang in North East Thailand which is thought to date from 3,000 BC. Buddhism and Hinduism, according to the archaeological finds of the Malayan peninsula, Indonesia and the southern delta regions of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, made their appearance about the first to third centuries of the Christian millenium. They seem to have come with Indian traders and missionaries from Indian and Ceylon. Knowledge of their philosophies, art work, and administrative approaches accompanied the riseof the first commercial states in these regions such as Funan, Chen-la, Sating Pra, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Takua Pa. Whilst Hinduism took root most strongly in Cambodia from eight to thirteenth centuries and in Indonesia in about the same time frame, it remained a superficial influence in Thailand, Burma, Laos where Buddhism took hold most strongly. In Indonesia, Hinduism saw the rise of the great empires of Sri Vijaya, Malayu, Mataram, and Majapahit. In Cambodia, it was the basis of the ancient Angkorian civilisation. However, archaeological finds in Thailand and southern Burma show that Theravada Buddhism was most dominant in the ancient kingdom of Dvaravati up to about the eleventh century when it was overtaken by the Khmer and the Thai. Theravada Buddhism however conquered its conquerors and spread throughout Pagan Burma (11th century), the first great classical Thai kingdom at Sukhothai (13th-14th centuries) and post Angkor Cambodia as well as Laos.

Islam which had been present since the early Christian era among the Muslim traders only started to spread as a concerted movement in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries after the fall of Baghdad changed the balance of power in the west and affected the trade routes - and therefore revenues - of the Islamic world. By the end of the fourteenth century the great temple building empires of SE Asia were all in crisis perhaps as a result of the strain on manpower and resources which such huge building programs entailed. Islam, with its emphasis on individualism, took root most strongly among the commercial groups in the port cities of Sumara, Java, and southern Malay peninsula at Malacca, later spreading to the archipelago world of eastern Indonesia. A series of upheavals in Java and Sumatra over a two hundred year period saw the rout of the classical Hindu empires and the establishment of a new polity in the various Islam states such as Demak, Banten, Aceh and the newly resurrected Islamic state of Mataram. The arrival of the European merchants, missionaries and administrators, Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, pushed Islam to coalesce to protect its gains from the new threat as the counter-reformation spread to SE Asia.

Catholic Christianity first took hold in Goa, India after Da Gama's 1498 discovery of the sea passage to the east, then spread to Malacca which was captured from Islam in 1511, then to Macao and other ports. The conversion of the Philippines to Iberian Christianity began with the Spanish capture of Manila in 1571 and was rapidly accomplished so that by 1650 most of Lowland Luzon and the Visayas had been converted. Protestant Christianity arrived with the Dutch in the early seventeenth century but had to await the Protestant missionary movement of the early nineteenth century before any converted evangelising movement really began. Apart from the Philippines, Christianity has had comparatively little success in SE Asia where Buddhism remains the dominant religion. Like Buddhism on the mainland, Islam continues to be the dominant religion in the island world although Protestant Christianity is said to account for some 8% of Indonesia's population. In recent times, much Protestant missionary effort has been expanded in Java and Borneo.


Basham, A.L. The Wonder that was India. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1954. Rpt. 1961.

Boisselier, Jean. The Heritage of Thai Sculpture. New York: Weatherhill, 1975.

Chevalier de Chaumont. Relation de L'Ambassade de M . Le Chevalier de Chaumont a la Cour du roi de Siam in 1685. Bangkok: Chalermnit, 1985.

Chumsriphan, Surachai. The Great Role of Jean-Louis Vey, apostolic Vicar of Siam (1875-1909), in the Church History of Thailand during the Reformation Period of King Rama V, the Great (1868-1910). Unpublished doctoral diss. Rome: 1990.

Chutintaranand, Sunait and Than Tun. On Both Sides of the Tenasserim Range. Bangkok; Chulalongkorn University Press: Asian Studies Monograph No. 50, 1995.

Gervaise, Nicholas. The Natural and Political History of the Kingdom of Siam. Paris: Claude Barbin, 1688. Rpt. Trans and ed John Villiers. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1989.

Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Glencoe; Free Press, 1960.

Gosling, Betty. Sukothai: Its History, Culture and Art. Ann Arbor: 1990.

Grant, Bruce. Indonesia. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1964.

Guy, John S. Oriental Trade Ceramics in Southeast Asia: 10th to 16th Century. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1980. Hall, Kenneth. Martime Trade and State Development in Early Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985. Harris, Ian, Stuart Mews, Paul Morris and John Shepherd (eds). Contemporary Religions: A World Guide. Longman Group, 1992.

Kane, Herbert J. Understanding Christian Missions. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982.

Kaempfer, Engelbert. M.D. A History of Japan together with a Description of the Kingdom of Siam. 1727. Rpt. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1987.

Keyes, Charles F. The Golden Peninsula: Culture and Adaptation in Mainland South East Asia. New York: Macmillan, 1977.

Latourette, Kenneth S. A History of the Expansion of Christianity. 7 vols. Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1937-45.

Legge, John D. Indonesia. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1964.

Marr, David and A C Milner, Eds. Southeast Asia in the 9th to 14th Centuries. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1986. McGilvary, Samuel. A Halfcentury Among the Siamese and the Lao: An Autobiography. New York: Fleming Rivell, 1912.

Narada Mara Thera. The Buddha and his Teachings. Singapore: Buddhist Meditation Centre, nd.

Reid, Anthony. Sout East Asia in the Age of Commerce. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993

Schouten, Joost and Francois Caron. A True Description of the Mighty Kingdoms of Japan and Siam. London, 1671. Trans. C.R. Boxer, London: Argonaut Press, 1935.

Smith, George Vinal. The Dutch in 17th Century Thailand. North Illinois University Press: Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, 1977.

Suksmaran, Somboon. Political Buddhism in SE Asia: The Role of Sangha in the Modernization of Thailand. London: Hurst, 1977.

Tachard, Guy. A Relation of the Voyage to Siam performed by six Jesuits sent by the French king to the Indies and China in the year 1685. London, 1688. Rpt. 1971.

Thailand and Portugal: 470 Years of Friendship. A Monograph published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, 1982.

Tambiah, Stanley J. World Conqueror World Renouncer. Cambridge: CUP, 1976.

Volker, T. Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1954. Rpt. 1971.

Warmington, E.H. The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928. Rev. ed. New York: Octagon, 1974.

Werner, Jayne Susan. Peasant Politics and Religious Sectarianism: Peasant and Priest in the Cao Dai in Viet Nam. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1981.

Wheatley, Paul. The Golden Khersonese. Kuala Lumpur: OUP, 1961.

Wyatt, David. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.